Saturday, February 28, 2009

Full Moon at the Symphony

Ah, culture!

Thursday morning, I was at work, happily instilling a love of Shakespeare in my Drama students, expanding the minds of my English Fundamentals students by introducing them to Fahrenheit 451, and trying to convince freshmen that diagramming sentences can be fun. I got an email from a good friend of mine asking if my sis and I could use tickets to the Knox-Galesburg Symphony Saturday night. He had won the tickets on the radio but could not use them because of a previous engagement. I jumped at the tickets -- even though it meant missing the annual male beauty pageant we host at our school each year, a pageant I had convinced the Belgian exchange student on the speech team to try. The symphony, though, was a far more appealing option, particularly since tonight's featured soloist was a former student of mine, an incredibly talented young woman named Anne Suda.

When I was in college, I went to the symphony a couple times, but it had been quite some time since I'd had the opportunity to go. The symphony is made up of area musicians and is conducted by Bruce Polay, who is a professor at Knox College. The fact that he's an educator was obvious during the first selection, Hovhaness’ Concerto Nr. 7. He gave what was essentially a brief mini-lecture explaining the background of the composer as well as the structure and key in which it was written. Once the symphony launched into this incredible selection, I was transported into the sheer exhilaration of live music. I sat there thinking how nice it was to dip my toes in some serious culture and how incredibly lucky I am to live in a town with such a rich and varied cultural landscape.

And then I made the mistake of taking my eyes off the stage, distracted by motion near the front of the stage. I turned just in time to see a man standing up . . . with his pants nearly completely off his ass as he struggled to pull them up. I was stunned, sure that I was not seeing what I thought I was. So then I made my next mistake -- I nudged my sis. She looked over to witness the same thing I had, we made eye contact, and well, we spent the next several minutes convulsing and trying NOT to laugh out loud. Sitting one row behind us was another former student of mine and sitting two rows behind us was the Associate Dean of the Humanities and Performing Arts at the local community college, a woman my sis and I have worked with on a couple different theatre productions. We both managed to keep it together and NOT disrupt the symphony with our guffaws and embarrass ourselves. After the concerto, my student leaned forward and giggled softly, "Did you see that man??!" Seconds later, the husband of the Dean leaned forward and called out to us and said, "Did you see that man's ass crack??" Apparently, our whole section witnessed the nightmare that was the full moon.

The rest of the program was outstanding, albeit crack-free. Anne's performance on Dvorak's Cello Concerto was absolutely breathtaking. And the selections from "Carmen" that closed out the program was the perfect way to end the evening. I can't wait to go again -- just hopefully without the moon.

(PS -- I received a text message from one of my speech team kids when I returned home that told me that not only had Julien, our exchange student, done well but that he had WON!)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Another Dirty Dozen

Before I launch into this week's Idol reaction, I wanted to briefly touch on the Oscars. They've been discussed a lot, so I will keep this brief since I'm sure we're all kind of tired of the Oscars. Obviously, I was pretty psyched to see Slumdog win -- the streak lives!! Even though I picked Mickey Rourke over Sean Penn, I was happy to see Sean Penn win since I WANTED him to win. I loved the touch of having former winners present the award with those touching tributes, I liked the grouping of the tech awards (and how they told the story of the creation of a film), I even liked the cheesy-ass musical numbers. It capped off a long, tiring weekend. (This was the weekend I took my two girls to State. We didn't make it to finals, but I couldn't be prouder of those two. They are pure class all the way.)

Now, on to Idol:

We move to our next group of twelve tonight, and, well, if we thought the talent pool was shallow last week, this week was a veritable puddle compared to last week! This was a week when I actually sat here and thought to myself, "Why am I watching this?" Not much from tonight gave me a really solid reason other than the sort of schadenfreude pleasure of watching train wreck after train wreck live on national television.

A rundown of tonight's performers:

1. Jasmine Murray: Jasmine was one of those early favorites that the producers seemed to have identified during the audition weeks. She suffered through Group Day with Bikini Girl and survived to live the tale. She was destined for fame. She actually reminded me during the audition process of Paris Bennett -- a cute, precocious, talented young girl. During her intro video, I found Jasmine a little annoying, to be quite honest, and then she came out and did "Love Song" by Sara Bareilles, which is one of my favorite songs of the past year. And it was not good. It was incredibly pitchy, out of her range, and just pretty awful. Performing first tonight won't do Jasmine any favors, and with that performance, I'm not sure I'd hold my breath for a wild card spot unless the judges are making decisions based on the promise shown during Hollywood Week.

2. Matt Giraud: Matt was another early favorite after that killer rendition of "Georgia On My Mind" he did during Hollywood Week. He's a cutie for sure, and I was pretty psyched when I heard he was going to sing Coldplay's "Viva La Vida," which is perhaps my absolute favorite song right now. (Whenever I hear it on the radio, I get so happy!) But this was a pretty total train wreck to me. He had this weird pacing and these horrific runs. (I HATE THOSE RUNS -- where they try to cram 50 notes where one sustained and lovely note should be. My sister calls it "shitting all over the song.") It was just bad, bad, bad. The judges may give Matt a wild card shot based on his Hollywood Week audition and if the rest of the performances this week are as lackluster and awful as this one.

3. Jeanine Veiles: WHO? Poor Jeanine, aged 28, has been trying to break into the biz for 14 years (yeah, do that math!). She received little to no "face time" during the audition weeks, so is pretty much meeting America anew this week. And I suspect America will politely but firmly slam the door in her face. She performed "This Love" by Maroon 5. I initially liked her attempt to turn it into more of an R&B diva kind of tune, but she had this weird vibratto thing going on and was adding all sorts of ridiculous runs. JUST SING THE DAMN NOTE!!! All the judges could comment on were her legs -- which was insulting, sexist, and telling. If they can't say anything nice about your singing, they talk about your looks. Jeanine, after 14 years, it's time to find a real job.

4. Nick Mitchell/Norman Gentle: Words fail me where this guy is concerned. Here's the thing -- I think he's an amazing freakin' showman. I would happily go watch him perform in a cabaret bar and probably laugh my ass off as I sing along with him. He has a pretty good voice, he's fearless, and he's a helluva lot of fun. Should he be American Idol? Probably not, but when he's gone, I'll miss him. His "And I Am Telling You" was campy and will probably be the performance I'll remember best tomorrow night. And I'm not ashamed to say that I called and threw the guy a vote because he made me laugh -- in a good way.

5. Allison Iraheta: During her interview with Ryan before her performance, I found Allison annoying. And then I found out she was peforming "Alone," which is one of those songs that maybe should be retired after Carrie Underwood's amazing performance back in season 4. So I didn't have high hopes for Allison. And then she came out and you know what? The kid did a pretty decent job. I thought it got to be a little much by the end and the background music did her no favors, but the kid was pretty darn good. This, however, brings me to a "concern." Allison is a high school junior. While she is tutored during her Idol tenure, I have some serious issues with her missing out on school to do Idol. Junior year is so crucial in a student's educational career, and I would hate to see Allison miss out and lose out on a more successful future to participate on a reality program. Okay, teacher hat off now. :)

6. Kris Allen: Kris was another "WHO?" for me. I don't remember this guy at all. And tonight won't help that. He performed "Man in the Mirror," a fact which I only remember because I took notes during tonight's performance. He was a bit pitchy and bland -- and talk about lousy song choice! It's perhaps one of Michael Jackson's weakest songs. That's not the song that will make America love you, Kris, so back to obscurity with you.

7. Megan Corkerey: During audition weeks, I have to confess I wasn't overly thrilled with Megan. She was quirky, yes, but I wasn't sure I liked the quirkiness she possessed. Tonight's performance of "Put Your Records On" was a little better for me. Here, her quirkiness worked for me. I could see her doing well on this show.

8. Matt Breitzke: One of the other blue collar dudes, Matt seems like a likable guy. He came out and did "If You Could Only See" -- of course. Doesn't every blue collar dude love that song? The whole thing seemed like a really good karaoke performance at a bar on the outskirts of town where all the welders hang out. Poor Matt didn't get the kind of pimping that Michael Sarver got last week when Simon all but ordered America to vote for the guy, and that's too bad because, truth be told, I liked Matt tonight a lot more than Michael last week -- until he talked back to Simon when he criticized his song choice. Talking back to Simon is my biggest pet peeve. Just shut up and listen to the man.

9. Jessie Langseth: In her interview package, Jessie came across as a very likable, chill chick. I was so ready to like her. And then she came out and sang "Bette Davis Eyes" with this weird sort of nasal and affected voice. (Like can you seriously tell me that her voice NATURALLY sounds that way? Of course not! You MAKE your voice sound that way. And did anyone else notice that when they played the recap at the end -- which is taken from dress rehearsal and not the actual live performance -- her voice sounded LESS affected? J'accuse, faker!!) It just didn't work for me. Multiple weeks of that fake-ass voice would be the sort of thing that could break me and Idol up again.

10. Kai Kalama: Kai is very cute even if his hair really bugs me. (Please look in a mirror before you come out and perform and maybe consider a trim to even out the look a little bit.) His choice of "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted" was nice, but I kept thinking that it sounded awfully Season 1 to me. Like I could see Kai alongside Jim Verraros and AJ Gill and Justin Guarini, but I also think that the show has grown beyond those Season 1 kinds of performances. Outside of Kelly Clarkson and Tamyra Grey, there was a real blandness to the talent of that season. Think of the Season 1 top 10 and compare them with the talent of later seasons that did NOT capture the crown -- Clay Aiken, Kimberley Locke, Jennifer Hudson, Bo Bice, Chris Daughtry, Elliot Yamin, Melinda Doolittle, Carly Smithson, Michael Johns, etc. Kai just doesn't quite cut it.

11. Mishovanna Henson: I really liked this girl. Her song choice was odd ("Drops of Jupiter" is really better when sung by a man about a woman), but her performance of it was enjoyable. I liked the quality of her voice perhaps the best of all the women tonight, but she's going to be fighting hard against Allison Iraheta and Megan Corkerey for a shot, and the lukewarm response from the judges may hurt her. Too bad.

12. Adam Lambert: First of all, brother has some brass ones to tackle "Satisfaction." Talk about iconic! I liked the arrangement he had -- for once the music didn't sound like a karaoke CD. The thing is that the song felt very Broadway to me. Don't get me wrong: I loves me some Broadway. But this felt like Adam was auditioning for the lead in the latest jukebox hit heading for Broadway -- Start Me Up: The Rolling Stones Story. Yes, the vocals were hot, but there was a lack of anything really genuine there. It seemed stripped of the rawness and grittiness that made parents across America fear that Mick and Keith were coming to rape their daughters. The judges were fawning all over Adam -- and I don't blame them. He clearly was the best performance of the evening, hands down, but he seems much more Constantine Maroulis than David Cook.

Adam is probably guaranteed a slot tomorrow night. None of the other men came even remotely close to touching him in terms of talent and performance. I think the other two spots may be taken by women -- Allison Iraheta and Megan Corkerey. Mishovanna Henson could be a dark horse, but I suspect that the better responses they got from the judges will give Allison and Megan the edge. I wouldn't be surprised to see Jasmine, Matt Giraud, and maybe Mishovanna back for the wild card show.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Getting Ready for Oscar

It dawned on me just now that since my weekend will be spent on one final weekend of coaching speech for the 2008-09 season, I may want to get my Oscar predictions out there. I suspect large chunks of my weekend will be spent soothing frayed nerves and helping wipe heartbroken tears rather than pondering the quandary that is Mickey Rourke vs. Sean Penn. So, a few days early, here are my predictions of who will win (as well as indications of who I would rather see win in some cases).

** I'm only doing the major categories here. Who cares that I think The Dark Knight will win sound editing or that The Duchess will take home the costume award?


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


The Reader

Slumdog Millionaire

Doubt and Frost/Nixon are both adaptations of plays adapted by the orginal playwright. I mean, yeah, that's an achievement, but to me, there's something to be said for taking someone else's work and making it work on screen rather than just using your own stuff. I'm thinking that this is going to be one of the big wins for Slumdog unless this becomes the "pity" vote so that Benjamin Button doesn't pull a Color Purple and go home empty handed. I'm pulling for Slumdog here. I liked the structure of the movie and the way that it seamlessly went back and forth in time without ever leaving me confused. I should also point out that I saw the movie with 6 teenagers who were also never confused as to what was going on.


Frozen River

In Bruges

Wall-E had a big critical (and popular) following this year, including a big push for it to be included in the list of Best Picture nominees. This may be the Academy's way to recognize a critically and popularly acclaimed film and also send a message that animated films are not a "lesser" brand of film. If, however, the Academy decides that Best Animated Feature is sufficient recognition, then my money is on Milk. I saw Milk Monday afternoon and was completely engaged from start to finish. It was a touching, naturally written script that moved without hammering me over the head.


Josh Brolin, Milk

Robert Downey, Jr, Tropic Thunder

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

Who will win this award? Seriously? You have to ask that question? Let's just say I will be enormously surprised if Matilda Ledger doesn't go home with a new toy Sunday night. The question, then, in this category is whether Ledger SHOULD win or WOULD HAVE won had he not died. (We will ignore the question of whether he would have even been nominated considering the Academy tendency to overlook movies like The Dark Knight.) Well, let's take a look at the competition. Brolin gave a fine performance in Milk -- creepy and yet almost sympathetic. I think, though, that he could have given us even more without going over the top. The world is just now catching onto the fact that Josh Brolin is a pretty darn good actor; his time will come. Downey's performance in Tropic Thunder is brave, outrageous, and masterful, yet it's harder for comedies to get the love they deserve. Hoffman is brilliant, and while I haven't seen Doubt, I've read the play and have no doubt (ha!) that Hoffman is brilliant in it. It's a brilliantly written part. Shannon also has what I suspect is a part that an actor could really sink his teeth into, but the fact that few people have heard of Shannon or seen his movie put him out of contention. And so that leaves us with Ledger and the question of whether or not he should win. And I quite honestly have to say, yeah, I really think he should. It's an amazing performance and you know, it's our last chance to honor the guy.


Amy Adams, Doubt

Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Viola Davis, Doubt

Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

This is probably the race that will determine a lot of office pools come Monday morning. I could honestly see any one of these five women taking home the prize. Unfortunately, I've set myself up here to predict winners, so I guess I have to do that, huh? Well, let's see. Amy Adams has become quite the critical darling, as of late, but the part of Sister James in Doubt is relatively thankless and doesn't give an actress a lot to chew on at times. While Oscar likes to recognize ingenues here, Amy may come up a little short surrounded by this talent pool. The showier supporting role in Doubt belongs to Viola Davis; unfortunately, she has a significantly smaller amount of time in which to make her case for the gold dude than most of the other women in this category. Of course, Oscar ALSO likes to give awards away for blink-and-you'll-miss-'em supporting roles -- just ask Judi Dench and Beatrice Straight. So Davis has a pretty good chance here, so let's pit her up against Cruz, Henson, and Tomei. I think we can eliminate Henson. While her performance in Benjamin Button is touching and a delight to watch, the movie itself seems to have cooled off a bit in terms of praise and attention. She's not gotten much pre-Oscar love -- she wasn't even nominated for a Golden Globe. So that leaves Cruz and Tomei and Davis. My gut tells me it's going to be Penelope Cruz -- she's overcome the handicap of being incredibly beautiful and proven herself to be hugely talented over the past several years. She survived Tom Cruise. And it's always good luck to be a supporting actress in a Woody Allen film -- just ask Dianne Weist and Mira Sorvino. Of course, Judy Davis was the frontrunner in this category 16 years ago for Allen's Husbands and Wives and then was stopped from taking that trip to the podium by a former soap opera/sitcom ingenue by the name of Marisa Tomei, so . . . . no, I'm sticking with Cruz.


Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

Sean Penn, Milk

Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Okay, this really boils down to a two-man race here -- Sean Penn versus Mickey Rourke. On the one hand, you have Penn, perhaps the finest actor of the past 25 years or so, a guy who has given amazing performance after amazing performance, who creates genuine, real people onscreen time and time again. Here, he's nominated for playing not only a historical icon but a gay historical icon and doing so without a moment of insincerity or hubris. On the other hand, you have Rourke, the sort of Hollywood redemption story we all love. Here's a guy who 25 or so years ago seemed destined for superstardom. He was an amazing actor. You don't believe me? Go back and watch Diner, The Pope of Greenwich Village, or even Rumble Fish. That guy was supposed to be the next Brando -- earthy, dangerous, and freakin' sexy as hell. And then something happened. He started making some questionable film choices, he started getting a reputation for being nasty and abusive, he started boxing and getting punched in the face to the point where that rugged sexiness was replaced by an alien-like visage that scares small children. So who wins -- the brilliant or the redeemed? My personal choice is Penn if only because I haven't seen The Wrestler yet. Plus, I was truly mesmerized by Penn's portrayal. Having seen the great documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, I was blown away by Penn's complete transformation. Plus, a win for Penn is a way for Hollywood to show some solidarity with the homosexual community and also a subtle way to condemn Prop 8 in California. The thing is, Rourke's win is the better story when you get right down to it, and ultimately, that's what this whole thing is about -- the story. So I'm going against my personal choice and saying Rourke for the win.


Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Angelina Jolie, The Changeling

Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Meryl Streep, Doubt

Kate Winslet, The Reader

Another pretty tough competition this year and another one that could be the shocker of the evening. Until nominations were announced, I think a lot of people (myself included) thought that Anne Hathaway probably had this all sewn up. Meryl MIGHT make a play for the prize (it's been awhile since Meryl actually WON one of these bad boys), but a lot of us thought it was Anne's to hold onto. And then something happened . . . the Academy ignored the studio campaigning and nominated Kate Winslet for Best Actress for The Reader -- rather than Revolutionary Road or rather than putting her up for Best Supporting Actress. On top of that, Kate swept the Golden Globes. On top of that, The Reader became the surprise fifth best picture nominee, beating out "sure thing" The Dark Knight. The buzz around Winslet has been growing as people question how someone so brilliant (and let's face it, folks, she is) could have acquired so many nominations (six) at such a young age (33) and not have won. So Winslet has emerged as the leading contender, but never, ever count out any of these others -- especially Meryl. That bitch is determined!


David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Stephen Daldry, The Reader

Gus Van Sant, Milk

Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

I'm going to address this category in the Best Picture.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Reader



Slumdog Millionaire

Okay, now sometimes, the Academy splits the vote here. I don't think that's going to happen this year. I think that the Slumdog juggernaut is too strong to split this vote, so the film is going to take both Best Director and Best Picture. Should it? Keeping in mind that, as of this writing, I've not yet seen Frost/Nixon or The Reader, I'm thinking it probably should. I'm torn between Slumdog and Milk, but when it comes right down to it, I think that Slumdog is perhaps the stronger film. I liked how it was structured and paced. I liked the gritty, almost documentary feel it had at times. While the same things could be said of Milk, the truth is that Slumdog is the one that hits your heart just a tiny bit harder.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

This Talent Pool is Tapped . . . .

. . . . or Thoughts on Last Night's American Idol.

So the sis and I settled in last night to watch the first round of semifinals for American Idol. We entered with high hopes. After boycotting almost all of last season in response to Melinda Doolittle's ouster (and the nausea-inducing crowning of Jordin Sparks), we had rekindled our love of the show over the course of the past couple weeks -- remembering just what it had been that made us love the show to begin with: the drama, the humor, even the talent. We have our favorites; we have the contestants we loathe. Last night's round looked to be highly competitive with a lot of people we had grown to like a lot during the auditions and Hollywood episodes. We were psyched.

And then the music started. SIGH! This is the best we have to offer, America? I'm not saying that every single performance was bad or cringe-inducing, but there wasn't anything that gave me the same sort of visceral reaction that I can remember having when watching Kelly Clarkson during this stage of the competition or Tamyra Grey or Clay Aiken or Fantasia Barrino or Jennifer Hudson . . . the list goes on and on. At best, we saw a lot of Kimberly Caldwells and Ryan Starrs and Gina Glocksens and RJ Heltons -- good, but just not quite good enough to be the American Idol.

Here's a rundown on the performances in the order that they were performed:

1. Jackie Tohn: Going into last night, I really liked Jackie. I liked that gritty, bluesy sound to her voice. And even though my sis keeps reminding Jackie that "Janis died almost 40 years ago!", I'm ready for that sort of whiskey-soaked soul to make a comeback. Last night's performance, however, was just kind of sad. First off, BAD song choice. While I love "A Little Less Conversation," it's not really a song to show off your singing ability. There's no real range to it. While I liked the sort of sexy soul vibe Jackie tried to inject into the song, it just didn't work and just didn't show off her talent. On top of it, her ridiculous "dancing" (which my sis said looked more like Elaine Benis than Janis Joplin) and that horrific outfit (that I thought looked what Minnie Mouse would wear if she were to become a prostitute) came together to create a performance that just didn't do Jackie any favors. By the end of the two hours, I'd kind of forgotten she'd even performed -- and then the recap at the end brought it all back to me like a bad nightmare. Sad.

2. Ricky Braddy: Whom my sis and I keep referring to as Ricky Bobby (and then we launch into a ton of jokes from Talledega Nights). Ricky is cute enough and has a nice enough voice, but he's that sort of voice I kind of hate in men -- that sort of high, nasally thing. It works with Justin. And that's it. I'm sure Ricky will get some votes, and if he doesn't get voted in tonight, I'm sure we'll see him back as a wildcard since Paula has gone on the record as saying he is a top contender to win in May. I just hope he picks some better songs and gets a little personality.

3. Alexis Grace: Hands down, this was my favorite performance of the night. Even though Alexis is scarily pale and looked a little bit like she had a case of the scoliosis during her performance, I LOVED her actual voice. She is also rocking a grittier, bluesier vibe -- just with a little less Southern Comfort mixed in. Her take on "I Ain't Never Loved a Man" was pretty darn perfect. Rock on, Alexis. Here's hoping America loves you as much as I did!

Okay, now my memory is failing me on who came next, so bear with me and spare me the comments telling me the order is all messed up!

4. Anoop Desai: I love the idea of an ethnically diverse American Idol. In theory, I like Anoop Desai. Unfortunately, I did not love or like or much care for Anoop's performance last night. "Angel of Mine"? Snore!!! I was hoping he would come out and tackle something fun like "My Perogative" like he did during Hollywood Week. The internet buzz is pretty hot on Anoop (EW has him ranked at #1 on their Idol Power List this week), but last night just left me really cold.

5. Stevie Wright: Oh my gosh. Without a doubt, this was the most painful performance of the night for me. Stevie is so cute and so charming and then she came out and gave this ghastly performance of some Taylor Swift song. (Shocking confession of the day: Um, I kinda love Taylor Swift.) It was off pitch, her nerves were palpable, and her breath control was non-existent. I felt bad for the poor kid, but man, that just really was not good.

6. Brent Keith: And the shit parade continues! Brent, who came in 6th on Nashville Star, came out and did some country atrocity called "Hicktown." Okay, right away those of you who know me should know that this performance would not work for me. First of all, with a few exceptions (and primarily those exceptions are the country-pop crossovers divas like Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood), I can't stand country music. Add to that the fact that the song is called "Hicktown." PUKE! (Although the idea of a town where all the hicks live is kind of appealing -- let them live in their town and away from me! While my sis pointed out that this idea sounded a bit like a concentration camp, I'm comfortable with that.) Brent's performance lacked any real soul or energy -- he was phoning it in. Plus, if you can only muster up a 6th place finish on Nashville Star, you are not going to see much success on American Idol, pal.

It was about this point that we were shown Ted Danson sitting in the audience with Neil Patrick Harris. WHAT THE WHAT?!?!? From there on out, my sis and I became obsessed with wondering what Neil and Ted were thinking. (And I believe I saw Mary Steenburgen there as well) My sis wondered if Neil went up to the judges and, pointing at Danson, said, "Haaaaaaaaaave you met Ted?" ala Barney Stinson.

Back to the performances.

7. Casey Carlson: And it just keeps getting worse. Casey chose "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic," changing it, of course, to HE. While the band kept the original Police punky-reggae vibe that makes the song such a class, Casey came out and sang it like she was a member of the Mickey Mouse Club, stripping any emotion or punk from the song. It was beyond bad. It just plain sucked.

8. Stephen Fowler: My sis and I have sort of hated Stephen since he got through to the semifinals after not just forgetting his lyrics during Hollywood Week but freakin' WALKING OFF THE STAGE rather than faking his way through. When talented guys like Jamar Rodgers, Michael Castro, or that cute little horror movie kid (Corey?) are sent packing in favor of a douchebag like that, it makes me start to remember why I had issues with this show. Stephen's performance of "Rock With You" was pretty abyssmal. I have to agree with the judges when they encourage contestants to stay away from Michael Jackson. For all of his eccentricities and proclivities, there's no denying Michael's style is pretty unbeatable, particularly early stuff like this -- when he was still young, black, and gifted. It's arrogant to think you can match that -- and the truly talented know better.

9. Ann Marie Boscovitch: Ann Marie was one of my favorites coming into last night, even though my sis argues that there is no way that woman is 22 years old. 42, maybe! Anyway, Ann Marie's performance of "Natural Woman" just left me flat. Aretha is one of those artists that maybe shouldn't be touched unless you really have the chops or have a good spin to put on it. Think Kelly Clarkson or even Alexis Grace from earlier last night. Ann Marie did a pretty karaoke take on the song and just left me pretty flat. Too bad.

10. Michael Sarver: I get this guy and Brent confused, and last night didn't help. Michael chose the pretty overdone "I Don't Wanna Be" by Gavin DeGraw and really didn't add anything knew to it other than being slightly off rhythm and pitch at the beginning. Snooooooooze.

11. Tatiana Del Toro: Perhaps the performance many of us were waiting for. Tatiana made a name for herself during auditions and Hollywood week, but I doubt it was necessarily the name she intended. Even though Psycho Del Toro has a nice ring to it. Anyway, last night, we saw a significantly more subdued Tatiana. Clearly, Tats has been doing some 'net surfing and has seen public opinion -- the Facebook groups devoted to her elimination from the contest (of which I am a member), the Vote for the Worst movement to insure her survival, etc. The thing is, to me, Subdued Tats was even crazier than Diva Tats. When Tats was playing the Diva, I was just afraid she was going to have a stroke or something from the emotion of it all. When Tats was subdued, I was waiting for her to pull out the gun and open fire. To make matters worse, her performance wasn't half bad. She picked a somewhat less divalicious Whitney Houston song ("Saving All My Love") and did a pretty decent job -- although she did get a little pitchy at the end. Tats just might survive. Sigh!

12. Danny Gokey: Good lord the producers want this man to win. He's been perhaps the most featured contestant up to this point in the show. Someone pointed out that the camera spent more time on Danny's reaction to Jamar's performance during Hollywood Week than on Jamar actually performing. To make the point more obvious, they gave Danny the coveted final spot. We all know Americans have a short attention span -- the later you perform in the show, the better your chances of survival. And so there was Danny performing (gag!) Mariah Carey's "Hero" as we approached the end of the show with that sweet, Robert Downey Jr.-esque face and those glasses and that sad looking friend in the audience and the video to remind us about the dead wife, and Paula up and bouncing as only she can to a song that's not really all that danceable. When he was finished, the judges just about clawed each other's eyes out with the sheer joy of what they had seen. The thing is, I wasn't THAT impressed. I mean, yes, Danny probably was the best male performance of the night (with Ricky Bobby, er, Braddy a close second), but it certainly wasn't a performance that left me in tears or inspired or anything like that. Danny will make it to the final 12 and probably deserves to be there, but I kind of wish the producers would trust us to make that choice rather than essentially making it for us.

My prediction is that Danny and Alexis will get the gender-reserved spots with the next top vote getter being either Ricky, Anoop, or (gulp) Tatiana.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"This Must Be What It Feels Like to Be Nominated for an Oscar"

Oh, friends, it's been quite a weekend!

Many of you may know that this weekend was the weekend of speech Sectionals here in Illinois. For the past several years, Sectionals has been a site of great disappointment for my speech team. See, we're from a pretty small school. While we're able to have great success during the regular season and even at Regionals, Sectionals is a whole different game for us. Suddenly, we're thrown up against big schools from up north -- DeKalb, Freeport, etc. Those schools have hundreds more kids to draw from, have the money to have multiple coaches (allowing for more intense and individualized attention), and have access to resources my kids just don't often have access to. Schools from my area of the state have a tough time competing even though we have amazingly talented kids.

This year, Sectionals were held in DeKalb, which is an overnight trip for my team since it's about 2-1/2 hours away and leaving the day of the tournament would mean putting the kids on the road at 4am. Since this was sure to be the end of the season for me and the six kids on my team who qualified for Sectionals, I decided to make this weekend a really kick ass time for them. We left for DeKalb at about 1:00 and reached our fabulous hotel in Sycamore about 4:00ish. (I highly recommend the Country Inn and Suites in Sycamore if you're ever needing a hotel in that area. The rooms were big, clean, and so many amenitities. My single room was a SUITE complete with a sitting room, huge king-sized bed, mini-fridge, and microwave. Very nice! After the kids had a chance to settle into their rooms, I took them out for pizza. A "movement" had begun among the kids to convince me to take them to a movie that evening. Initially, the plan had been to go see Friday the 13th, a plan which I and another girl vetoed. The kids then found out that Slumdog Millionaire was playing at the DeKalb multiplex. They had a winner -- a movie I could not resist! The begging commenced. They were determined -- even after I told them that going to the movie would mean no swimming since the pool would close before we got back. They conferenced over this choice in the car and unanimously chose movie over swimming pool. How could I resist a pleading group of kids who WANTED to go see the very movie I was most desperate to see? (And that's the nice thing about coaching smart kids -- they were begging to see Slumdog Millionaire and not something like The Pink Panther 2.) The movie was absolutely incredible. If you've not seen it, please do! An added bonus for us is that one of the members of our team is Pakistani and was able to translate slang for us and explain some of the cultural references. It was like Pop-Up Slumdog Millionaire.

Saturday morning, we all met in the lobby for a pretty impressive continental breakfast -- a breakfast that included sausage, french toast, waffles, and more. Nerves were pretty high especially among the seniors who were staring at the end of their seasons and their speech careers. (My two co-captains, Hassan and Shai, had been close to tears at dinner the night before -- as was I as one of them asked me, "How are we going to make it without you?") Added to our anxiety was the fact that Marcela, our Radio speaker, had woken up sick -- including a weakened voice. I managed to encourage her to try to compete anyway, telling her that she would kick herself later for getting that far and not at least trying, asking her to just give me ten minutes (Radio speakers go for just 5 minutes per round). We pumped her full of slippery elm and sent her on her way. Between rounds, Shai, who is the only four-year member of the team (and the only four-year Sectional qualifier), was pretty despondent, telling me how good her competition was and revealing how plagued with self-doubt she was. While she has been to Sectionals four years in a row, she's never made it to finals at Sectionals. I gave her a pep talk, telling her that she was just as good, if not better, and to not give up, to go in there and do her absolute best.

At 2:00, the list of finalists was posted. This was a time of some heartbreak for my kids. Hassan, who was our only Sectional finalist last year, did not break to finals, so his speech career was officially over. Julien, my Belgian exchange student, had also not made it, and his European melancholy kicked in. Kianna, who was our "surprise" qualifier in Impromptu, missed breaking into finals by just one point, but she and I both took solace in the fact that she is just a junior and will have another shot next year. We did, however, make it to finals in two events -- Shai broke in Original Oratory and Marcela broke in Radio. I found Marcela and asked her if she could give me five more minutes, and the smile that spread across her face as she realized what that request meant let me know she had it in her. After seeing her own name on the finals posting, Shai came and found me, tears in her eyes, and we hugged and cried for a minute or two before we realized she had to go speak. I was forbidden from going to see her (Last year at Regionals, I went to see her perform and was witness to a pretty massive "choking" as she drew a huge mental blank. We both decided that I was a jinx and mutually decided that I was to never go see her compete again!), so we parted ways as she went to speak and I went to hang out with my assistant coach, the very cool Seth. (Seth is a former student who needed some volunteer hours and was a huge help to me. Kianna's success in Impromptu is largely due to his coaching, I believe. Plus, he made several awesome mixed CD's to be the soundtrack to our journey. There's a lot of fun to be had driving down the highway with a carfull of kids singing along to "Mama Said Knock You Out.")

It became a very long afternoon as Marcela and Shai went into their rounds. I tried to console myself with the fact that Marcela is a junior and will be a powerhouse next year and get another chance. I was more anxious for Shai, knowing how much it would mean to her to go to State, knowing that not making it would be so hard on her. She came out of her final round feeling confident that she had done her best but with no expectations beyond feeling sure she would not get last place. She said to me, "Making it to finals is enough for me. That's the best I've ever done, and that's a good way to end."

By the time we went into the awards ceremony, I had two anxious girls. Marcela felt pretty confident but had the sort of peace of mind that comes with being a junior in finals -- the fact that she had rallied health-wise enough to compete was her victory of the day. Shai was visibly nervous but playing that "As long as I don't get last, I'm fine" game. To make the tension even greater for all of us, their events were announced in the latter half of the ceremony, meaning we had to sit through all these other events waiting to see their fate. Soon, though, it was Shai's turn onstage.

For those of you not versed in the speech world, the top three in each event qualify for State. So there is this moment of great drama and tension as the 4th place finisher is announced. Will your name be called and your season end then and there? Or will your name not be called, meaning you earn the trip to "the Big Show" next weekend? The moment came when there were four people from Original Oratory standing on stage, and Shai was one of them. The rest of us were sitting there in the audience, shaking, praying, tight with nerves. And then the coach from DeKalb announced the person who had come in fourth . . . . and it was not Shai. I can't even begin to describe to you all the look on her face as it dawned on her what that meant -- joy, disbelief, even a little fear. She and I locked eyes and the tears were suddenly flowing down both of our cheeks. (I'm seriously crying right now thinking about it) After accepting her second place medal, she came down off the stage and came running for me and we stood there in the aisle just hugging and sobbing with joy. It was perhaps the greatest moment of my young coaching career. Here was this girl whom I personally recruited for the team when I was assistant coach and she was my top student in my Honors English I class, a girl whom my predecessor had told me would be my "superstar". Being able to celebrate in her accomplishment was overwhelming in terms of the pride and joy I was feeling at that moment. She kept whispering, "When am I going to wake up? I have to be dreaming!" I replied, "Well, then we both are. I won't wake up if you won't."

And then we both snapped into reality and focused on watching to see how Marcela had fared in her event. I had a good feeling about Marcela's chances. A coach who had judged Marcela's final round had seen me before the awards ceremony and had said, "That girl's going to State. She was amazing." As it came time to announce the fourth place finisher, Marcela was still onstage, looking anxious yet confident at the same time. They announced fourth place . . . and it was not Marcela. When she came offstage with her third place medal, she came to me and hugged me -- not tearfully like Shai but joyfully, excited to have earned her place among the top 18 Radio speakers in the State.

I spent most of the drive home last night just sort of mentally pinching myself -- feeling that sort of disbelieving thrill of having my kids earn two spots at State, especially keeping in mind how hard it can be for teams from this area to earn ANY spot, let alone two. I thought to myself, "This must be what it feels like to be nominated for an Academy Award." Or to have coached an Academy Award nominee. Next weekend is just the sprinkles on top of the icing on top of the cake as my girls take their places among the rest of the best the state has to offer, and I'm just along for the ride.

** Since I posted an article from the local paper that included their names, I feel like it might be a little disingenuous to use psuedonyms anymore. And knowing these kids, they WANT the world to know their names!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Time to Brag

This article appeared in the local paper here yesterday about my speech team. I just had to show off once more how cool my students are. :)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Tales of a Grammar Nazi

I'm sure it doesn't surprise many of you who know that I am an English teacher when I say that I am a grammar nazi. I have been known to give detentions to students for saying "ain't" or who use double negatives in my presence. I tell my students that their speech is the first indication they give people of who they are and that they should want that first impression to be one of intelligence and not hillbilly-esque rubery. I am exacting on myself as well, frequently beating myself up when I realize that my pronoun and antecedent aren't in agreement minutes after saying them. (Like many, I struggle with indefinite pronoun antecedents and often make the mistake of making "everyone" plural.) Lately, I've been struggling to come to terms with the fact that my mother is CHOOSING to marry a man who says things like, "I like them french fries they got at Buffalo Wild Wings." (Okay, not an actual quote, but he DOES use "them" as an adjective. It's like nails on a chalkboard every time!) I just find it highly ironic that the woman who lectured me numerous times about the inappropriateness of saying "ain't" (I can still remember the lecture I received in the middle of Montgomery Ward's!) can overlook something so heinous as someone's speech.

Good lord -- I am a snob!!

But we all knew that.

Since I suspect my attempts to correct my future stepfather's grammar would either seem rude or become a joke to him, my poor speech team bears the brunt of my quest for good grammar. I hold much higher expectations for them than anyone else. I mean, they are a SPEECH team. They should be a model of excellent SPEECH!

My biggest pet peeve which has become a team mission is when people use "good" as an adverb. For example, let's say Rachel my Super AD comes out of her poetry round at a meet and I say, "Hey, Rachel, how did Poetry go?" Her response SHOULD be, "It went well." Also acceptable would be, "I did well." An unacceptable response would be, "I did good." Thanks to my hero Tina Fey and the folks at 30 Rock, I come back at the "I did good" with the response, "No, Rachel, Superman does good. YOU do WELL!"

Luckily, I have a speech team that is good natured and good humored. The first time I said that to them, they all laughed. It has now become a team mantra. The kids have taken it so far that they have created the "good jar" -- a tub into which people put money when they use "good" as an adverb. It's a struggle and the amount in the jar inches up slowly but surely. When they got off the bus Saturday afternoon, Rachel came up to me with the report that Katrina owed the jar 25 cents on Monday and Claire owed 75. Rachel does a weekly counting and reporting of what's in the jar so far -- a couple dollars at last count -- and I believe she and Katrina even wrote a little rhyme about the jar -- something that involved the rhyming of well and going to hell. To me, what's most important is that the kids are making a concerted effort to improve their speech and working together to make that happen one baby step at a time.